Wherever she goes, Patricia Dumbrowski spits bars. She raps in her dreams. While brushing her teeth. Changing her grandmother’s diaper. Into the loudspeaker at a convenience store. At her catering job. Inside abandoned shacks in parks. She jots lyrics in journals and freestyles in parking lots. She drives a burnt-red station wagon with a license plate that reads “PATTIWGN.” She fantasizes about a glistening hip-hop career, far away from the monotony of her lower-class New Jersey upbringing.
Patricia Dumbrowski is also 23, plus-size and white, with thick, curly blond hair that falls below her shoulders. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Killa P to the stage. You’ve never seen a rapper like this.
Really, Patricia Dumbrowski is Danielle Macdonald, a fledgling Australian actress who’d never rapped ― she can’t even sing ― before Geremy Jasper chose her for the lead role in his new movie, “Patti Cake$.” Jasper saw a photograph of Macdonald and knew right away that she was his star.
As for the whole rapping thing? “I was like, ‘I can’t say yes to this,’” Macdonald, 26, recalled during an interview last month at HuffPost’s New York offices. “I don’t know why this guy thinks I can rap, but I cannot.”
Oh, whatever ― they’d figure that out later, Jasper said. And they did.
“Patti Cake$,” which opens in theaters Friday, became one of this year’s Sundance Film Festival crowd-pleasers. The movie rests on Macdonald’s shoulders, and she was christened an instant luminary. It’s a rags-dreaming-of-riches story: Patti and her BFF (newcomer Siddharth Dhananjay) stare at the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River, longing to parlay their rhymes into a record deal.
Macdonald, who moved to Los Angeles at 18 and earned her Screen Actors Guild credentials via an episode of “Glee,” has appeared in the low-budget thriller “The East” and a couple of indies that were barely released theatrically (“Trust Me,” “Every Secret Thing”). In 2014, Jasper called to ask her to attend the Sundance screenwriting lab in Utah, where nascent filmmakers spend a few weeks workshopping their projects with the help of Hollywood professionals. (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Fruitvale Station” are among the many movies that went through the lab.) There, Macdonald and Jasper perfected the character of Patti ― her cramped home life, the disenchantment hidden beneath her confident facade. Assuming “Patti Cake$” would never get studio financing with an unknown like her as the lead, Macdonald treated the adventure like a “terrifying” acting exercise. Surely someone else would get cast by the time the movie was greenlit, she thought ― probably someone who could rap.
Fast-forward three years, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Macdonald in the role. Onscreen, she carries herself with the command of a veteran star, well aware of the winking humor inherent in a doughy white girl who can out-perform the best of them. Patti lives in a modest Jersey house with her wheelchair-reliant, chain-smoking grandma (Cathy Moriarty) and an oft-drunk mother (Bridget Everett) who would rather people think of Patti as her sister who helps with their mounting bills.
Macdonald learned to rap by studying PTAF’s “Boss Ass Bitch” and Nicki Minaj’s catalog, particularly “Truffle Butter,” breaking down the songs line by line. (She could never master Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, though. “He does not breathe, I swear,” Macdonald said, laughing.) She’d mark up the lyrics, indicating where to take a breath or pause, until she didn’t need the coding system anymore and was ready to lay down Patti’s original tracks. In came a dialect coach to help with the Jersey intonations and a rap coach to help her “sit in the beat and be more comfortable.”
The final results earned Macdonald a standing ovation at the movie’s Sundance premiere. Now, she’s headed for the big leagues. She appeared in the finale of “American Horror Story: Roanoke” ― the experience matched the frenzy of every Ryan Murphy production; Macdonald got the job 15 hours before the shoot started ― and has a supporting part in the Greta Gerwig–directed comedy “Lady Bird,” opening in November. She’ll soon put her amateurish musical appetite to further use in “Dumplin’,” playing a Texas-based Dolly Parton obsessive who enlists in a pageant to piss off her beauty-queen mother (Jennifer Aniston). Macdonald also scored the headlining role in the forthcoming adaptation of the novel White Girl Problems. And she’ll always have "rapper" on her résumé.
“If you make one person happy, there you go ― you did your job,” she said, reflecting on the attention “Patti Cake$” has already received before hitting theaters. “With this movie, it was very weird because on set it felt very special always. Very magical. But at the same time, you’re like, ‘No one will see this, but this feels special.’ When Sundance happened, it felt insane and not like reality at all. I was in this bubble with these same people. Now I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
“Patti Cake$” opens in select theaters Aug. 18.